Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Q&A with Teresa Robeson




Teresa Robeson is the author of the new middle grade book Who Is Tibet's Exiled Leader?: The 14th Dalai Lama, part of the "Who Is" series about notable people. Her other books include the picture book Two Bicycles in Beijing.


Q: Why did you decide to write this “Who Is” book about the Dalai Lama?


A: Thanks for inviting me back to be on your wonderful blog, Deborah!


Unlike my other books, I came to Who Is Tibet’s Exiled Leader? via a different route. A couple of years ago, my then-agent saw a tweet from an editor at Penguin Workshop looking for authors to pen biographies in graphic format. She asked if I would be interested in vying for a spot.


As my WNDB (We Need Diverse Books) mentor, Jane Yolen, advises people: always say yes to opportunities, so I said YES! Besides, I’ve been reading graphic novels and comics since my early childhood years in Hong Kong so I’m very fond of the format and wanted to learn to write them.


Penguin Workshop has a list of famous people they want biographies on, as anyone who is familiar with their Who HQ series knows. They gave us a few names and asked me to write a proposal on one so they could see if I was up to the task.


I chose Bruce Lee (who is the subject of my other Who graphic biography to be released in 2024) because I have a two-fold connection to him. Like Bruce, I am a Hong Konger who ended up in the U.S. And, my father knew Bruce’s sifu in passing because he used to take gung fu lessons himself. The editor and her team were enthused about my proposal and signed me for that project. They asked me if there was anyone else on the list whom I’d like to write about.


I’m not much of a sports or history buff and there weren’t scientists to choose from, so there really was only one other person I wanted to write about and that is His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. My favorite grandmother was Buddhist; therefore I always felt an affinity for Buddhism. Plus, who doesn’t love the Dalai Lama?


Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about him?


A: I’m not really aware of what people think of the Dalai Lama, but a possible misconception they might have is that he is holier-than-thou. That is completely not the case! He will readily tell you that he was a mischievous and headstrong child.


He’s comfortable with the idea that while he is the embodiment of the eternal Dalai Lama spirit, he is also a fallible human being like everyone else. He doesn’t have to be a saint to teach compassion, his mission in life, and he wants people to know we don’t have to be perfect to be compassionate.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: It can be nearly impossible to directly reach His Holiness himself, so I did the next best thing which is to absorb his autobiography, Freedom In Exile, and immerse myself as much as possible in his experiences and emotions. Because everyone, without exception, has an imperfect memory, I also cross-referenced events with two other books written by people close to him.


Since I didn’t know much about the Dalai Lama (besides the fact that his brother taught at the same university my husband teaches at and opened the first Tibetan restaurant in the U.S. in our town), just about everything I learned was a revelation.


But the one episode that stuck most in my mind was when he crashed a car that belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama. He got into more trouble as a teen than I did! That made him real and relatable.


Q: What do you think Angela Poon's illustrations add to the book?


A: I think Angela’s illustrations make the book! It would be nothing without her gorgeous art. I got teary-eyed when I first saw her concept art for it. I knew her illustrations would be absolutely perfect…and they are! She captured the Dalai Lama’s physical look and expressions and her use of colors is stunning.


I could go on and on about how much I love her illustrations. I’m so grateful to the Penguin Workshop team for finding Angela to illustrate this book.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: As I mentioned above, I’m working on the Bruce Lee graphic biography for the same series. He was a complicated man with great faults to go with his great talents. I just saw Ryan Inzana’s concept art and I feel incredibly lucky to be paired with yet another top-notch artist!


In addition, there are a couple of deals that have not yet been announced for which I’m doing research (nonfiction middle grade book) and awaiting edits (a picture book about my culture).


I have another middle grade nonfiction project that’s under consideration; I’m continuing to do research on it while waiting to hear back from the editor. There should be an early reader nonfiction project in my future--I’ve spoken to the editor but haven’t signed a contract yet. Plus, I’m having lots of fun on a picture book that I’m writing on spec after chatting with an editor.


There’s not much time to squeeze in anything else, but I’m determined to finish revising a contemporary middle grade and rewrite (for the 10th time) a young adult alternate history novel.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I was so very excited when a couple of different friends told me that they spotted my debut book, Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom, at the Lowell Observatory gift shop! That checked off an item I didn’t even know I had on my bucket list.


Also, I’d love for readers to sign up for my newsletter! They’re short and sweet: I send them out monthly with what I hope are cool finds and recommendations related to my areas of interest. Subscribers will be the first to know about my upcoming publishing news. And I also have quarterly giveaways.


Thirdly, to those of you who are here for the first time, be sure to sign up for Deborah’s blog updates! These interviews introduce you to a wide variety of book topics and genres; you may find a new favorite that you might not otherwise stumble across on your own.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Teresa Robeson.

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